Israel Heads To The Moon A spacecraft named Beresheet is set to be Israel's first spacecraft to land on the moon. It came about because Israeli scientists lost a contest — but continued with the work anyway.
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Israel Heads To The Moon

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Israel Heads To The Moon

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's talk now about a very elite club. Only three countries have landed spacecraft on the moon. That would be the United States, the former Soviet Union and, most recently, China. Well, now the country of Israel is poised to land a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface, funded by public and private donations. From member station WMFE in Orlando, Brendan Byrne has more.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: The spacecraft is about the size of a kitchen table. It's decked out in reflective gold material used to protect the vehicle from the drastic temperatures of a deep space mission. Its name, Beresheet, which is Hebrew for in the beginning. SpaceIL is an Israeli nonprofit that has been working on the lander since 2011. Earlier this year, the team completed the design, testing and manufacturing of the spacecraft and sent it to the U.S. ahead of its upcoming launch on a SpaceX rocket. A few weeks ago, the Israeli scientists sent it from Israel to Cape Canaveral, Fla.

DAFNA JACKSON: I don't have kids, but I feel that it's like letting your baby go and grow up. So she's on her next step before she goes up to the moon, and you have to do it.

BYRNE: Dafna Jackson is an adviser at SpaceIL. The eight years that led to this moment included financial uncertainty and technological challenges.

JACKSON: The countries that have done this before - China, Russia and the United States - have done it with a budget of billions of dollars. We didn't have that budget. We are on a budget of a hundred-million dollars.

BYRNE: The project stemmed from a global challenge from Google, called the Lunar X Prize, which dangled a prize of up to $30 million to the first private company to land on the moon. The X Prize was cancelled when the five finalists, including SpaceIL, missed the deadline of launching back in March of 2018. But the state and private donors stepped in, and Jackson says the project continued.

JACKSON: The reason that they entered this project is that they wanted to give the Israelis a sense of pride and unity.

BYRNE: On top of that, Israel's space program is small, launching only a handful of military and commercial satellites. And astrophysicist Gal Sarid says the country hasn't sent anything to the moon.

GAL SARID: There's some disadvantages in the sense that you don't have that kind of track record and hands-on experience with doing that.

BYRNE: Sarid is from Israel. Now he's with the Florida Space Institute. He's been following his home country's efforts to land on the moon and says the original Lunar X Prize challenged participants to work with less resources to achieve more.

SARID: But also this kind of fortitude of having people that have to think outside the box.

BYRNE: The spacecraft is small, only about 350 pounds before getting loaded up with fuel. And it has to share a ride to space. The lander is a secondary payload, riding shotgun on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. And Jackson says the lander won't head directly to the moon, instead making its orbit around the Earth bigger and bigger, eventually getting pulled into the gravity of the moon in about two months.

JACKSON: So everything was very, very complicated. It is a very, very complex project.

BYRNE: When the lander arrives on the lunar surface, it will hop, snap a selfie and deploy a handful of science experiments. Those were all original requirements of the Lunar X Prize challenge. Sarid says it wouldn't make much sense for Israel to be doing this otherwise.

SARID: If you just land a small spacecraft - just lands there, hops and looks around, there's no commercial value there.

BYRNE: But Jackson says she hopes the landing will inspire a generation of new aerospace engineers and students.

JACKSON: Once we launch and everybody studies how we did it, we will definitely, definitely become a very big player in the space industry, 100 percent.

BYRNE: As of now, the launch is scheduled for late February or early March. For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

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